Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thinking Aloud And Censorship

I seemed to have inadvertently tested the boundaries of civilised discourse recently by raising a point on twitter regarding our personal responsibility and the crimes that may befall us. It made me wonder - are there any questions that should never be asked, issues that should never be explored?

The question I poised was this: If a man wore a suit covered in £20 notes and got mugged, would you blame him? If a woman wore provocative clothing and was assaulted, would you blame her?

I received a very quick and brutal schooling in sexual politics and rape in response to the question and quickly had to admit that it was poorly constructed and probably had a false premise. Nevertheless, I stood by the attempt to explore the underlying principle of the question, which was how much responsibility we should take for our personal safety in an uncertain world.

Some decided that the question itself was so offensive that it should not have been asked. Worse, merely by asking I was accused of being a rape apologist. Hmmmm. This followed closely on from a heated stream of abuse I received for asking what the actual evidence was for the existence of Satanic Ritualistic Abuse?

I say that there are no questions that should not be asked, perhaps especially if they are inherently offensive. For if we fear to read into such issues they risk quickly slipping into dogma, which is the death of knowledge and inquiry. And I think that those who fear such questions reveal the weakness of their own beliefs.

The idea that discussion of some ideas can be prohibited for being offensive is profoundly dangerous. To prohibit questioning is downright insane.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Powerful Question

Whenever I give any sort of public talk then I make it clear that I am not only open to a Q and A, but that if I'm daft enough to insert my life into the public eye then the questions that can be asked can be as personal as people care to imagine. Thankfully, few take full advantage of that offer!

At Exeter University last week, though, someone came up to me at the end. During my talk I had pointed out that people have universal human needs and will struggle to fulfil those needs; and if denied legitimate, peaceful avenues of doing so then this struggle may become violent. My interlocutor sidled up, gathered their nerve and asked a question many may have been thinking - why should we care about the needs of those such as myself who have denied the needs of others? The words "murdering bastard" were not mentioned, but lay in the air as if they could leap into existence at any moment.

It was a fair question. A question that many would ask, and an equal number would answer for themselves... My immediate answer is, why add harm to the harm already committed? To what end?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Margerine Campaigning

So I may be spreading myself a bit thinly for some tastes, like a meagre offering of margarine. Here, on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedi n, popping up before audiences across the nation either via some media or appearing in a puff of smoke, as large as life and twice as ugly.

And this raises a dilemma. This blog was never intended to be a daily diary; my autobiography was intended to be the framework for a wider discussion. And yet some people don't travail the digital wasteland further than the blog and still want to know what I am up to.

So... I will explore the technological to feed all the crazy to here as well from the other places and, failing that, will post little pieces if anything interesting is happening. I hope this is a happy medium.

On that note, snow permitting, am off to Exeter University at the invitation of the student Howard League guys to give a talk on penal reform. Sold out!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Strange Company

The privatisation of chunks of prison and probation related parts of the criminal justice system has worked some people up into a lather. Coupled with the concept of Payment by Results (PbR) as a means to reduce reoffending, it is clear to all but the wilfully stupid that the government intends to impose significant change.

I can’t recall having a fundamental issue with the privatisation of punishment – the essence of the matter – as someone, somewhere is making money out of the whole affair. Whether screws or suppliers of cell doors, prisons are a money laundering machine. That the private sector claims to be able to do this more efficiently is, to my mind, hardly a moral point but a practical one. Not that the moral debate was ignored – it just passed by in the blink of an eye 25 years ago and attempting to resurrect it is politically futile.

That lot said, to find myself on a conference platform as host of an event sponsored by G4S was one of those moments when I had to give serious consideration as to the nature of reality. Surely I have slipped across the quantum boundaries into a different reality? For there I was, with an old prison Area Manager, now glad-handing him as a head honcho at G4S. Strange days.

Not everyone is as sanguine over a future where giants such as G4S dominate. Probation officers in particular are taking to the streets in mass outraged mobs….Well, putting down the recall forms long enough to hack out a tweet or two, at least. And the objections seem to be wildly ideological, reducing to “private=bad, public=good”. And crazy libertarian that I am, such ideology doesn’t interest me one bit.

Public services are rarely better than private ones – if at all. The people who make up the organisations can be as lazy, useless or professional as anyone in the private sector. The difference is, a lousy public sector organisation that fails to deliver doesn’t go bust, it just keeps wasting the public’s money. If a private company consistently did badly, it would go bust and open the way for a new competitor.

The idea that private industry is inherently bad is a silly one. The profit motive has driven Western culture to the heights where it dominates the globe. Along with democracy, private enterprise is the greatest contribution the West has made to mankind. And we enjoy its benefits every moment of every day.  To dismiss private enterprise when it encroaches purely because of the profit motive is positively weak-minded.

The criminal justice landscape is changing and ideological objections seem to be futile. It is a fascinating time, where adaptation and flexibility may signal the survival of the best old ideas and practices and the demise of the useless.

Adapt or die. And I’m adapting like hell. And sharing space with G4S is a portent of very fluid times.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Five Live Investigates

Ed here.

Just in case you missed it, Ben was on Radio 5 this morning discussing historical abuse cases.  Available on iPlayer.

He is now laid up with Nora virus, which has been trying to get him for a few days.  Something from him will appear on here in a day or two.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Not Missing, Wandering....

If you wonder where the hell I am when not glued to the blog, it's because I am apparently pursuing several careers. As well as writing and consulting, pitching in at the Howard League and Inside Justice, I also seem to fill the hours being a terrorist-pervert cult leader with a sideline in Freemasonry.

Which, if you hadn't guessed, means I am also busy on Twitter. Compress a thought into 140 characters, and away you go... It really is surprising what exchanges and connections can flow. And so Twitter is where I waffle about my daily doings (so to speak...), and fill the endless hours on trains.

Of course, not everyone welcomes debate - even when they put up a comment for the world to read, they can take umbrage at anyone passing comment in response. Daft. Which is how, in only the last 36 hours, one particularly rancid collective on Twitter has decided to sling abuse my way.

To clarify. I am not really a terrorist-pervert-cultist-freemason. Honest. But that's the level of abuse that can crop up from those too deaf to hear another voice in the wilderness of Twitter. Ho hum.

But it is fun, engaging, and full of great people. Twitter. @prisonerben. Pop along.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Man with A Problem

You probably won't know the name John Bowden, unless you take a particular interest in the radical edge of prison politics. A fellow lifer, he remains in prison having being imprisoned the same year I began my sentence.

John is a highly vocal, politicised, man. Whenever I sat and listed those few prisoners who were publicly and consistently critics of the prison system - never more than a handful - John was at the top.   He writes for a different audience than myself, and does so eloquently from a differing ideological stance. John has always deserved a wider audience.

The prison system has made him pay for his criticism. A brief whizz with Google will reveal the rather extraordinary shennanigans he has endured in recent years.

This blogpost is highlighting the most disturbing new development - the use of secret evidence to the Parole Board by the Prison Service. I incklude what John himself has explained about the situation below. I just want to add that this is a disturbing development; that the prison service is attempting to use John's perfectly legitimate written criticism as an excuse to keep him imprisoned. It could so easily have happened to me.

John's latest follows here:

"It is relatively rare that prisoners, originally sentenced for non-political offences, become so politicised whilst in jail, that their release is opposed by the prison authorities for exactly that reason.

In the case of life sentence prisoners who have served the “tariff” part of their sentence (or the length of time the judiciary stipulates they should remain in jail), the legal criteria determining their release, or not, are clear and straightforward: Has the prisoner served a sufficient period of time to satisfy the interests of punishment and retribution? Does the prisoner remain a risk to the community? Can the prisoner be safely and effectively supervised in the community post-release?

Of course the prison authorities would never openly admit that apart from the above criteria, there is another “risk factor” that would prevent a life sentence prisoner’s release: Their identification with a progressive or radical political cause. Opposing a life sentence prisoner’s release, purely on the basis of their having exposed and organised against human rights abuse in the prison system, would of course make a complete mockery of the claim that, apart from its punishment function, prison also exists as a place of reform and rehabilitation, a place where supposedly brutal and anti-social criminals are made better people by a system administered by humane and just-minded individuals. The entire legitimacy of the prison system is based on the premise that, essentially it exists to protect the public from individuals who represent a threat , so denying that some life sentence prisoners are kept locked-up solely because they embrace an ideology that actually believes in a society and world free from violence, exploitation, and inequality, is imperative if the myths and fallacy used to justify the existence of prisons is to remain intact.

The prison system actually employs a whole legion of compliant ‘Criminal Justice’ system “professionals”, like social workers, probation officers, and psychologists to provide, if necessary, the politically neutral lexicon of “risk-factors” and “Personality Disorder” to legitimize the continued imprisonment of life sentence prisoners, who in reality are viewed as politically motivated and likely to become politically involved on the outside if released. The narrative of my own life and experience from brutalised and violent young criminal to politically conscious prisoner activist, and how the prison system continues to respond to that, is illustrative of how that system actually considers politicised life sentence prisoners far, far more worthy of continued detention than those who might genuinely pose a risk to the community.

In 1982, I was sentenced, alongside two other men, to life in prison for the killing of a fourth man during a drunken party on a South London council estate. At the time, I was 25 years old, and a state-raised product of the care and “youth justice” system. The prison system that I entered in the early 1980’s was a barbaric and de-humanising place, where in terms of the treatment of prisoners, the rule of law stopped dead at the prison gate. My almost immediate response to prison repression was one of total defiance and resistance, that was met with physical and psychological brutality in the form of regular beatings, (in 1991 a civil court in Birmingham found that prison guards in the notorious Winson Green jail had subjected me to a sustained and gratuitous beating-up within minutes of my arrival at the jail), and many years held in almost clinical solitary confinement. Far from breaking my defiance, such inhuman treatment only deepened my determination to fight the system, and to use the only method truly effective in that regard – solidarity with other prisoners. As the years passed, I began to politically contextualise the struggle I was involved in against the prison system, and understand it as a part of a much wider struggle that transcended prison walls and essentially characterised all societies and places where the powerful brutalised and de-humanised the powerless.

The length of time that my original trial judge recommended I should remain in jail has now long passed, and yet I remain in a maximum security prison, and what can best be described as a campaign by the prison system to keep me here intensifies with the approach of my second parole hearing in over 30 years.
It is essentially my contact with prisoner support groups on the outside, or “subversive” and even “terrorist” groups, as the prison authorities have defined and described them, that is now claimed in some prison system reports, as the main “Risk-Factor” preventing my release. Of course , if necessary, for the purpose of officially legitimising my continued imprisonment, for the convenience of the Parole Board, the usual array of morally compromised and corrupt social workers and prison-hired psychologists will attest to the fact that my enduring “anti-authoritarianism” is just a symptom of my psychopathy and continuing risk to the public. But if there are any doubts that I remain in prison, first and foremost, because of my efforts to expose the prison system for what it truly is, then a document sent to the Parole Board by the Scottish Prison Service on the 2nd December last year, lays them firmly to rest.

The document, an “intelligence report” compiled by the Security Department at Shotts Prison in Lanarkshire, was comprised of two parts, one that I was allowed to read, and another part described as “Non-Disclosure”, which means secret information that I would not be allowed access to. It is rare for “Non-Disclosure” intelligence reports to be submitted to the Parole Board, and it represents a total negation of any pretence of open and natural justice, very much like the secrecy employed to imprison “terrorist suspects” without legal due process. Obliged as it is to officially inform prisoners if “Non-Disclosure” evidence is to be used against them at parole hearings, I received a letter from an “Intelligence Manager” at Shotts Prison in late December of last year, informing me that a portion of “intelligence” on me was so detrimental to “public interest” if it was revealed that it had to be kept secret. I was, however, informed that the “intelligence” related to articles written by me that were critical of the prison system and then placed on political websites. One seriously wonders how the posting of articles and information on the internet that expose abuses of power by the prison system, would so endanger “public interest”, unless of course we replace “public interest” with the more precise “state interest”. The purpose behind the use of “Non-Disclosure” evidence in my case is obvious – To convey to the Parole Board the clear message that my current “risk” is not so much about a danger to the public, but much more about my willingness to publicly expose the brutal nature of the prison system, with the assistance of “subversive groups” on the outside. The part of the “Intelligence Report” that I was allowed full access to confirms this.

Virtually every single one of the “entries” in the part of the report I was allowed access to focuses on what it describes as my “internet activity” and links to “subversive groups” on the outside:

“Bowden continues to leak information through a social networking site.”

“Website features articles relating to Bowden asking people to protest and fight for freedom.”

“Bowden continues to be involved in internet activity and there are plans to have a day of action in support of Bowden.”

“Intelligence provides that Bowden sends correspondence out of prison that is then posted on the internet.”

There is also a reference to what was described as my attempt to set up a debating society in the prison’s Education Department to “platform his current political views, which are focused on poverty.”

This is the evidence that the prison system claims justifies my continued detention after more than three decades in prison. Not a single entry in the “intelligence report” suggests I pose a genuine risk to the community or am likely to re-offend in a criminal way, and yet the Parole Board, a wholly white middle-class body, will inevitably rubber-stamp my continued imprisonment in compliance with the prison system’s wishes.

The two men who were originally imprisoned with me in 1982 were released almost twenty years ago, and I, as a direct result of my struggle to empower and organise prisoners in defence of their basic human rights, remain buried in a maximum security jail, probably until I die.

I will of course continue to write and distribute articles exposing and criticising the brutality of prison as a weapon of social control and ruling class violence, and also highlighting my own victimisation as a consequence of that.

John Bowden"


There are very, very few prisoners who have the stones to persistently criticise the prison system in public. The group has never comprised more than a handful, and each pays a price. They do society a service, in challenging the dominant discourse and attempting to drag the secluded world of prison into the light of public scrutiny.

To attempt to continue their detention for their activities is a repugnant outgrowth of the prison services' need to control and subjugate. It is a matter that should concern us all.

I encourage readers to disseminate this blogpost as widely as possible.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Past, Present, Future

I sometimes used to joke that on release I would take a tour of the prisons I had been held in. Not out of sentiment, but curiosity. For out of any cell window that is fortunate enough to have a view over the wall, the vista is inevitably truncated; I often wondered what was just out of view from the window, and a tour to stand outside the walls would satisfy that curiosity.

Yesterday I found myself in just that position, looking upwards at the cell in which seminal events in my life had taken place. My lengthy hunger strike, the riot of 1990, my gradual transformation into a political animal... But it was not sentiment or curiosity which led me to stand in the shadow of that wall, it was pain.

A message from someone still inside had tugged me straight into that difficult past. 32 years are not easy to shrug away, nor should they be, but the daily prison grind has retreated from the forefront of my memory. The message brought so much back, and reminded me of the strength of purpose I had whilst inside. I knew what I was doing, and I knew where I was going. That ended at the Gate.

And I realised, staring up at that cell window, that things must be different now. I can no longer spend endless hours typing away at people's complaints, running to the library for the latest PSI or reading endless Notices to Prisoners that managers churn out merely to demonstrate their own existence. The jailhouselawyer and subversive political guy may have had purpose, may have been roles that made sense on the landings, but they do not in my new existence.

The scope, the vista, that I am faced with is so much larger. Indeed, it is only limited by my ability and the structures within which the world operates - along with a fat chunk of blind luck. The issues have expanded, become more strategic. Helping a man argue over a personal prison issue has become a policy consultant at the Howard League - no longer dealing with a single prisoner or a single issue, but the whole of the penal landscape with its myriad avenues. Equally, being the front-man for some injustice has become a caseworker at InsideJustice, dealing with a range of people and their unjust convictions.

As the years passed I did find myself addressing wider issues than the immediate. It was this which led me into blogging at the start. And so in some way, I have always seen further ahead than the immediate, the seemingly small issues on the landing (which are actually very large in prisoners' lives). My arguments went from being aimed at screws to being fired at policy makers and I entered the wider political debate with the blog.

And yet....finding my place in this new arena has been difficult. At times it just became ridiculous. What the hell was I, me, doing chatting to Jon Snow on Channel 4 News? The journey so far has been somewhat surreal and so far removed from my previous existence that  felt profoundly adrift.

The chill of that wall's shadow, the pathetic emptiness of my old cell window, brought life into perspective. I can still do what I always did - challenge, question - but now the avenues I walk and the debates I have are different. Perhaps less immediate in their need or effect, but still in some way it is the same activity - only writ large.

And so the battles for change continue. Only now I know, really know, that not only am I home but that I can still try to make a difference.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years Cheer

The disjunction between my old life and my new one has caused me psychological shocks over the past few months, where I am transported out of the moment and see the broad vista.

I have yet to find my place in this new existence, and that is denying me the moments of inner certainty which allowed - powered - my writing. One outcome of that is a reduction in blog posts, for which  apologise. Try as I might to pass it off as mere writer's block, I know that it is rooted in being unsettled and uncertain at some fundamental level.

As I was at my first (legitimate) New Years Eve party yesterday and the clock ticked down the final few seconds of the year I had one of these moments, psychic shocks, and I had to step outside. Thoroughly drunk, I stood in the middle of the hilltop suburban street in the drizzle, the city laid out before me.

Fireworks were, in Kipling style, shattering the night to the right and left of me and yet there was not another soul in sight. The sharp sounds reminded me of the prison custom - to kick the hell out of the steel cell doors at midnight.

And I stood there in the damp darkness, raising a beer to those I had left behind. For that moment I felt again the pains we shared.

A New Prison Blogger is Born